How do you measure the value of criticism? Especially in the aftermath of a particularly brutal review, artists do their best to downplay the meaning of ‘one person’s opinion’. But if you’ve ever been involved in a fringe theatre performance that Lyn Gardner is attending it becomes apparent that every artist involved instinctively understands that the role, at least in her case, extends far beyond that. The tangible excitement (and gut-spasming nervousness) generated by Lyn’s presence is not about one person’s opinion, nor is it even about the potential boost in ticket sales that a positive notice might represent. It’s about the vital portal that she is able to open between your work and the wide-open spaces of our national, even international, cultural and political discourse.
Lyn is a critic of sparkling wit and intelligence, of righteous political and ethical convictions, and perhaps most importantly of vast, unquenchable curiosity and enthusiasm. I have spent over ten years bumping into Lyn at the Edinburgh Festival, at fringe theatres, in warehouses, forests, fields and other unlikely places, and without fail she is always illuminated by a tangible hopefulness, a belief in the potential of whatever she is about to see to move her, to change something, to in some small way make the world a better or more interesting place. That spectacular optimism and indefatigable energy have meant that Lyn, more than almost any other critic I know, including those operating without the constraints that come from writing for a national daily, is always prepared to take a chance on something or someone that might not otherwise get one – on a new artist, or a wild idea, or an attempt to do something different.
Equally importantly, before she was at the Guardian, Lyn wrote about theatre for City Limits, a collectively-owned magazine that emerged out of the politically-radical early years of Time Out. I think that as a consequence, Lyn has a deep personal understanding of the kind of radical politics that structure and inform independent theatre in this country – a playful, messy politics that buries much of its meaning in form and process, in creating your own defiantly autonomous means of production. Lyn speaks about this kind of work on its own terms, but does so in a way that shares her empathetic understanding with a far broader audience than the work would find on its own.
All of which is to say that Lyn is a rare and precious conduit between what the artist Chris Goode might describe as the ‘upstream’ and the ‘mainstream’. And this means that Lyn is often not only the first person to write about a particular artist in the ‘mainstream media’, but is also, to a greater or lesser extent, involved in enabling those artists to achieve their full potential. There is, for example, Forced Entertainment, winners of the 2016 Ibsen Award, perhaps Europe’s most prestigious theatre award, who Lyn has been reviewing and writing about consistently for over 15 years. Or Punchdrunk, who Lyn wrote about as far back as the Firebird Ball in 2005. Or the director Ellen McDougall, currently creating perhaps the most consistently exciting programme of work in the country as artistic director of The Gate, who Lyn has championed since her earliest productions.
Or there is Forest Fringe, the project I run with my colleagues Deborah Pearson and Ira Brand. In our first year at the Edinburgh Festival, back before we even had a theatre license and when Deborah and a diligent but vanishingly small team of volunteers were running everything on their own, Lyn wandered in to see an experiment of mine that I had breathlessly told her about when passing her on the street. She stayed for two hours and wrote in a blog about the experience she’d had – a slither of recognition that let the light in on the whole enterprise, that enabled us to understand what the value might be of this thing we as yet hadn’t created. As we continued to develop Forest Fringe over the following decade, from a room above anarchist cafe in Edinburgh to a project that has since created festivals in over a dozen countries on four different continents, Lyn continued to play a crucial role in sharing our work with people far beyond the rooms we were working in, filling our delicate attempts at something new with a light and a power they could not have had on their own.
Because Forest Fringe, and many artists like us, are not the Hollywood stars of tomorrow. We will not run the National Theatre or RSC one day. Our value to the cultural discourse in this country is not predicated on who we will become, but on who we are and what we are doing now. Lyn creates a unique means by which that effort can remain connected to parts of the theatrical world far beyond it; a channel through which the edges, geographically, artistically, aesthetically, can find passage to the centre. She is one of the very few people who help keep the disparate parts of our theatrical landscape connected, a thread along which ideas and people can travel. And that is, to me and I believe to many others, a far more valuable and distinctive purpose for mainstream theatre criticism than offering another opinion on the blockbuster show of the week.
In their statement on not renewing Lyn’s contract, the Guardian spoke of wanting to add ‘new voices’ to their arts coverage; an approach that is seemingly not being extended to their longstanding male critics in art (Jonathan Jones – 19 years), film (Peter Bradshaw – 19 years) or theatre (Michael Billington – 47 years). The bitter irony of this is that Lyn is perhaps the best means they currently have for finding those new voices, relentless pursuer that she is of new perspectives and new ideas, and equally tireless in finding space and a context for them at the Guardian. Additionally, assuming that these new voices will not enjoy the stability of Lyn’s former full-time position, the paper is thus forever locating the work those voices will cover as implicitly as marginal and contingent as the livelihood of journalists covering it, lacking the seriousness or commitment they deem worthy only of the most mainstream fare. It seems horribly short-sighted that a paper that claims to champion the independence of its outlook cannot recognise the remarkable not only esteem in which Lyn is held across the theatre world, but more relevantly the unique cultural purpose she enables that paper to serve, as the place where the very different parts of that world are able to meet on relatively equal terms.
This is not an obituary, and Lyn will continue to be an excellent critic wherever she writes. But unless the Guardian can be persuaded to reverse their decision then perhaps this is the end of a time when a mainstream daily newspaper was able to play such a vital role in the life of theatre in this country; as the point where the edges most visibly met the centre, where radicality diffused into the mainstream, and where the full plurality, diversity and defiant distinctiveness of theatre in this country could be recognised and preserved.